A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Writing Conditions: The Premises of Ecocomposition

Madison Percy Jones1,  University of Florida

(Published August 23, 2018)


Writing does not begin in the self; rather writers begin writing by situating themselves, by putting themselves in a place, by locating with in a space. Writing begins with topoi, quite literally with place
—Sidney I. Dobrin (“Writing Takes Place” 18)

The assignment is to position ourselves at the crossing [ . . . ] between the material environment of Gainesville, Alachua County, Florida, and the mood, the emotional frame that tells me how I am situated, where things are ‘at’ for me, my attunement to the world [ . . . ] to explore this tuning collectively in our place specifically (chora)
—Gregory L. Ulmer (“Walden Choragraphy” 82)


This article explores the role of place in ecocomposition scholarship by considering how specific locations participate as premises of writing. Ecocomposition is a post-process theory of writing that attempts to delineate the places, environments, and ecologies of writing. Although composition scholars have traditionally conceived of place in terms of commonplace, examining specific locations underlying commonplaces deepens our understanding of how place participates in the act of writing. In a conditional sentence, protasis is the premise preceding the main clause, while apodosis expresses consequences or implications. From this perspective, the conditions of writing emerge from the material environment and the individual who becomes attuned to place through writing. Viewing specific places as premises for ecocomposition brings focus to the ecologies of writing. Focusing further on place as actant in writing networks, I build on scholarship theorizing writing as both participating in global ecologies and as taking place in autochthonous conditions. If this essay’s central claim were to be expressed as a conditional sentence, then, it might look something like this: if writing begins with place, then theorizing place as premises deepens our understanding of the conditions of writing.

In what follows, I develop an ecocompositional understanding of premise as a method and then apply it to an analysis of media theorist Gregory L. Ulmer’s description of the concept of chora circulating through the Devil’s Millhopper (fig. 1), a sinkhole in Gainesville, Florida. This location has appeared across many of Ulmer’s works, from Teletheory (1989) to Electronic Monuments (2005).

Figure 1: Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park “Devil’s Millhopper Sinkhole.” Photograph by Lou Tennant.

Though north-central Florida has played an influential role in the works of hundreds of writers and scientists, I focus here on Ulmer because of his influence on ecocomposition and place-based writing studies scholars such as Jeff Rice and Thomas Rickert. Through Ulmer, I examine premise in the tradition of choric invention, presenting north-central Florida as a rhetorical crossroads “where nature and culture meet”—to quote Alachua County’s motto (“Visit Gainesville”). By tracing the ways that places act as protasis for Ulmer, I hope to make apparent the ecological relationships between writing, place, and media. Beginning with specific place as chora rather than departing from commonplace topoi, ecocomposition can further account for the role of place in composition not as a fixed entity but as fluid, complex, and emergent. Through this study, I develop solonist ecocomposition as a practice for defining the emergent relationship between self and place in writing. Solonist ecocomposition treats place as a premise of writing to trouble the distinctions between (human) writer and (nonhuman) world 2. Through solonism, writing becomes a practice of rhetorical wayfaring, where writers navigate a choric world by embracing a state of internal and external change through writing.

Placing Ecocomposition

For over thirty years, a growing body of compositionists have discussed the study of ecology, environment, and writing. Though early scholars exploring this terrain do not use the term ecocomposition, they are clearly working in this direction (Coe). Early strains of ecocomposition brought the science of ecology into conversation with composition studies for various, and sometimes contradictory, purposes. While some ecocompositionists focused on the first-year writing classroom as place (Moe), others challenged the locations where “writing takes place” (Dobrin, “Writing Takes Place” 24) to include places beyond the groves of academia (Participatory Critical Rhetoric). Around the same time, scholars began to reconceive rhetoric itself, moving away from the “rhetorical situation” (Bitzer) toward “variation and collaboration” (Phelps 60) and then “rhetorical ecologies” (Edbauer). As composition acknowledged the importance of specific locations in the writing process, they turned attention to place as located in more than only pastoral, pristine, or picturesque environments (Hothem). Each of these scholars conceived of place as distributed and dispersed, more a wellspring for invention than a backdrop for individual writers.

When ecology was translated into the writing classroom, it was fractured into various foci. As compositionists discussed locations of writing, they also considered the relationship between environments, media, and writing. Marilyn Cooper’s 1986 article “The Ecology of Writing” used ecology to argue for a paradigm shift for teaching beyond the cognitive process model (364). Cooper built from the science of ecology to offer a model of “dynamic interlocking systems which structure the social activity of writing” (368). Ecology provided a metaphor for understanding the limitations of process-driven models. David Grant traces these divergent approaches to Tim Taylor’s A Historical Understanding of Ecocomposition: The Greening of University Rhetoric, which identifies “two approaches within ecocomposition: environment as subject (EAS) and environment as metaphor (EAM)” (206). While some studies sought the ecological aspects of writing, others explored environments as course topics (Owens).

From here, the field of ecocomposition began to take shape with Sidney I. Dobrin and Christian R. Weisser’s three-part initiative, beginning with Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches (2001) and followed by Natural Discourse: Toward Ecocomposition (2002) and their article “Breaking Ground in Ecocomposition” (2002), which offered a detailed history of ecocomposition and its connections to ecocriticism and other ecologically influenced disciplines. Dobrin and Weisser’s own definition of ecocomposition in Natural Discourse begins with/in the premises of north-central Florida. They describe diving at Crystal River in Florida where a sign is posted deep underwater. By conceiving of ecocomposition out of specific place, their study begins in a location that “reminds us of how enmeshed the world of words, of text, and the natural world are” (1). Specific places, for Dobrin and Weisser, make apparent the discursive construction of place, but they also reveal how environments precede and exceed the topoi that emerge from this construction. Beginning in a specific place, rather than a commonplace topic such as sea-level rise, ecocomposition situates its use of ecology in the premises of place rather than an abstract concept.

Recently, scholars have conducted studies of specific places to further locate writing. Casey Boyle and Jenny Rice’s collection Inventing Place: Writing Lone Star Rhetorics, for instance, explores locations throughout Texas as part of “the poiesis of a body-place assemblage” (2). In other words, the collection treats place as co-produced between writers and their particular locations. Similarly, Jeff Rice’s collection Florida theorizes the state as a network by reading various contested spaces and monuments that comprise place. Among the place-oriented readings offered in Rice’s collection is Dobrin’s “An American Beach.” By situating ecocomposition in a specific place, Dobrin not only offers a method for “reading beaches” rhetorically but also reveals the ways in which beaches trouble clear distinctions between nature and culture. These recent works focusing on writing studies and specific places extend earlier projects. Thomas Rickert’s chapter in Keller and Weisser’s The Locations of Composition examines rhetorical “Invention in the Wild” through the classical concept of kairos as “a highly nuanced set of relations among language, environment, and people” (82). Such autochthonous nuances emerge from the specific locales where writing takes place.

Altogether, these studies suggest the important role place plays in composition. Building from these studies, this essay posits place as premise. Whereas the concept of place edges toward the territories of the slippery and diffuse, studying locations rhetorically uncovers the networked, material, and ecological premises of writing 3. I specifically look to the karst topography of north-central Florida as a premise, especially how this topography functions in the work of Gregory L. Ulmer as situated in the “Florida School” of rhetoric and composition. In their introduction to the Florida School in New Media/New Methods, Jeff Rice and Marcel O’Gorman describe how Ulmer drew inspiration from both the material environment and the rich literary history of Alachua County to inform his approach to new media writing. From the karst landscape of north-central Florida, Ulmer imagined the underground flow of water as evoking the winnowing process of chora. In his work with the Devil’s Millhopper, Ulmer produces a theory of writing based on Plato’s concept of chora rather than Aristotle’s topoi. While topoi-driven methods position writers to engage place as a topic—something to write about—chora destabilizes this positioning, revealing methods for writing with/in place.

The Premises of Writing

In modern parlance, premises refer both to the underlying propositions upon which a discourse builds and to the boundaries of a property. The word premise appeared at the top of title deeds in the seventeenth century, referring to the property described in the document. Over time, the word became synonymous with property. Thus, premises are places specified and occupied through writing as well as beliefs, theories, or values from which a writer proceeds when constructing an argument. Premises are the convictions, exigencies, and logic that come before a conclusion. Premises are preliminary. Like premise, place precedes the act of writing. Place is also, however, shaped by writing and acts in the proceedings of writing. Claiming place as the premise of writing is not to position the material environment as subordinate to the writer or written text. Rather, place is premise to the conditions of writing; therefore, it is not separate from what Boyle and Rice (paraphrasing Heidegger and Yi-Fu Tuan) term a “bodily experience of being there, turning space into a place” (3, emphasis original). Grant echoes this perspective by calling for further study of “emplaced ecologies of discourse, what discourse does in particular ecologies” (214).

Though the modern usage of the word emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the relationship between place and premise is much older. In his definition of topoi in the Rhetoric, for instance, Aristotle distinguishes between commonplace (enthymeme) and specific place (protasis). Although Aristotle’s topoi might generally translate to “place,” he used both common and specific topoi to define a method for generating arguments. Aristotle builds his topoi method from the method of loci, a process by which a rhetor memorizes a long speech. The method consists of assigning parts of a speech to various landmarks in a well-known place and then mentally walking through that place to recall the speech. Thus, topoi are a means of both remembering and generating arguments through places. In this process, place participates in the generative processes of memory and invention.

Aristotle lists common topoi that can be used to produce arguments in the second book of the Rhetoric (II.23–24). Specific place is associated with thesis, protasis, and premise, while commonplace is associated with the generative topoi in the second book. Generally, the first book details specific topoi, or the premises from which the later commonplaces develop. Specific topoi are ensconced in types of rhetoric, for which they are suited. Likewise, they are disciplinary. This is not always the case, and some topoi are a combination of the two. However, Aristotle generally describes rhetorical commonplaces rooted in specific topoi. This is not to ascribe to Aristotle a contemporary understanding of place or networks, a venture that would rely on dubious anachronisms. Instead, I give this example to illustrate the historical relationship between the specific and the common. As rhetors employ commonplaces today, the connections between the premises of commonplaces often vanish.

Before Aristotle centered his rhetorical method on topoi, Plato’s chora was a prevalent theory of the relationship between space, place, and invention. Plato describes chora in the Timaeus as a “third kind” (48e4). The concept is, perhaps, the linchpin of electracy. Ulmer describes chora as the interval between chaos and order, from which meaning emerges. Plato refers to chora as a hypokeimenon (material substratum) that connects the immaterial world of reason and the Forms (being), to the material, physical world (becoming). As Thomas Rickert demonstrates in Ambient Rhetoric, chora referred to the area that fell outside the city walls but was still considered part of the polis. The concept was taken up by poststructural theorists such as Julia Kristeva and Jacques Derrida who influenced Ulmer’s early interest (Rickert, “Toward the Chōra”). Chora has been used by rhetorical scholars such as Ulmer (Applied Grammatology), Rickert (“Toward the Chōra”; Ambient Rhetoric), Byron Hawk, Jeff Rice (Digital Detroit), and Caddie Alford to understand writing in a networked age. Ulmer defines chora as “to electracy what ‘topic’ is to literacy, placing discrete literate concepts into holistic field constellations” (“Electracy” 15). Whereas topos is organized through “shared essences, necessary attributes,” he explains that chora “gathers singular ephemeral sets of heterogeneous items based on accidental details” (Electric Monuments 120). Writing through choric invention is a “memory or memorial operation of sorting or ordering [ . . . ] that which remains undifferentiated” (125). Through chora, Ulmer’s holistic theory of electrate invention is deeply rooted in place.

Ulmer develops choragraphy, his method of digital invention, from Plato’s concept, defining choragraphy as “a rhetoric of invention concerned with the history of ‘place’ in relation to memory” and a “method for writing and thinking electronically” (Heuretics 39, 45). Whereas topoi are fixed or demarcated places, Ulmer defines chora as ‘space’ or ‘region’ (“Electracy” 14). Thus, chora is not merely an abstract or higher-scale version of topoi nor are they in binary opposition, as Hawk points out. The two are linked as network and node. In fact, as I develop further in the next section, just as chora evoked a particular relationship between the inner and outer regions of the polis for Plato, so does chora evoke the karst features of north-central Florida for Ulmer. The springs, sinks, and cavernous underground aquifer all play an important role in shaping Ulmer’s depiction of what Sarah J. Arroyo calls the “ebb and flow created by choric invention” (63). Locating writing studies with/in the Devil’s Millhopper brings ecocomposition into deep contact with choric and electrate methods.

Conceiving of place as choric means embracing movement and flux over fixity. Though premise denotes the certainty of property defined by the letter of law, it originally referred to “the aforementioned” place on a title deed. This includes the environment, buildings, and animals inhabiting the place, and even the safety of conditions for visitors (in the case of premises liability). Likewise, ownership of premises is defined through writing but is also subject to change through writing (Dobrin, “The Occupation of Composition”). Thus, although premise might suggest place as fixed, it is better described through the relationship between chora and topoi or specific and commonplace. As Alford asserts, chora provides a “recursive, layered sense of a beginning, hinging as it does on space and discursive play.” Place begins only where it ends. It shapes and is shaped by writing. As Dobrin points out, writers “write themselves into the order of a system, and they help define that system” (Ecocomposition 19). Writing is more than what a human composes about a place. The environment is inseparable from the writer. It provides the very conditions of writing.

Although the material environment participates in the cultivation of place as a premise, its preceding helps place to fade from view. David M. Grant, unlike Boyle and Rice, does not offer a study of place. Grant’s call for “literacy in and with the environment” rather than “literacy about the environment” is undercut by his treating the environment as an abstract topos rather than focusing his study on a specific place. Grant turns away from commonplace to locate emplaced discourse within the field of ecocomposition, but his essay does not examine an actual place (215). Though Grant rightly identifies the problem of the series of transformations between words and world, the article discusses place abstractly, breaking from place as premise. Thus, the abstraction of world into word becomes the origin point from which theory departs and arrives. Still, Grant does push for ecocompositionists to move beyond rigid models toward complexity, and he includes the need for place-oriented scholarship as part of that move (214). By extending Grant’s argument to read the karst landscape of north-central Florida in Ulmer’s work, as I do in the next section, the connections between chora, place, and writing begin to surface.

Choric Environments

Places are emergent participants in the act of writing. The Devil’s Millhopper, a sinkhole in Gainesville, Florida, is a premise for Ulmer’s theory of electracy. Through the location, Ulmer articulates the fluid relationship between choric writing methods and electrate practices. Ulmer uses the karst composition of north-central Florida to illustrate chora in many of his works but most markedly in Heuretics and Electronic Monuments. However, in his earlier work, the relationship between place and chora is more implicit. In later projects like “Miami Virtue: Choragraphy of the Virtual City,” electrate practice is deeply rooted in places defined by the aqueous flow of chora. Ulmer later establishes deeper connections between chora and electracy, as Rowan Wilken claims, but the concept is more than a minor element in even earlier works (51). In many ways, the relationship between chora and specific places is the premise of even Teletheory, starting with the image of the sieve on the cover.

In the final section of Teletheory, Ulmer offers an example of his mystory writing technique in an essay fragment titled “Derrida at the Little Bighorn.” In the essay, Ulmer establishes the connections he finds between the Devil’s Millhopper and Walt Ulmer’s Sand and Gravel plant. The sieve, which literally bookends Teletheory (appearing on the cover and the penultimate page), brings together the Derridean conception of chora, the apparatus used in his father’s plant, and Ulmer’s own experiences to put his inventive technique into practice (fig. 2). The sieve represents the sorting or winnowing process of chora, which Ulmer understands through choric association.

Figure 2:  Cover of Ulmer’s Teletheory featuring the image of a sieve adapted from Jacques Derrida.

Ulmer recalls how “one of [his] first jobs when [he] worked at the plant was to clean the grids of the screens used to grade the gravel into sizes” (237). Through this memory, Ulmer is able to understand chora in the manner of Plato’s “bastard reasoning” (Plato, Timaeus 52b). Ulmer compares this in the next section of the essay to Plato’s description of chora in the Timaeus as winnowing through “crible, sieve or sift” (240). In this image, Ulmer uses a reciprocal technique, examining chora through choric writing. It is clear from this example that the entangled nature of chora and place serves as the premise for Teletheory as well as for Ulmer’s later formation of the theory of electracy.

The karst topography of north-central Florida, with its springs and sinkholes, is an important premise to Ulmer’s later theory of electracy. Craig Saper’s essay “The Florida School’s Legacy, or the Devil’s Millhopper Joke Revisited” examines the influence that the Devil’s Millhopper sinkhole had on Ulmer’s work. Saper explains how the sinkhole served as an inventive location through which he interpreted Hamlet in a TV series parodying “psychobiographies, common in PBS documentaries on authors” that focus “on places [ . . . ] to explain the meaning of poems” (69). He builds this parody from the connections established in the final chapter of Teletheory where he connects the Millhopper to “Hamlet’s Mill” through his father’s sand and gravel plant. The parody is meant to illustrate how place functions in networks of writing—not as part of literate interpretation, but as chora. Ulmer sought through parody “to pull the (Mill’s) stopper and let writing out of the logocentric book-logic” (70). The Millhopper, then, is a touchstone through which Ulmer employs choric methods for digital writing.

The sinkhole is a premise for many of Ulmer’s works (fig. 3). In Electronic Monuments, Ulmer proposes the Florida Rushmore, a psychogeographical monument in the Devil’s Millhopper.

Figure 3: In “Metaphoric Rocks,” Ulmer first proposes the Devil’s Millhopper as the location for the Florida Rushmore monument “where the flux of the electronic portraits figures the instability of the land itself.”

Using digital technologies, the monument would illustrate the relationship between individual and collective identities. The sinkhole is a premise that suggests “one possible alternative to national identity” (24). Ulmer uses psychogeographical techniques that he connects to Freud’s model of the psyche and Deleuze and Guittari’s notion of faciality to unearth the Millhopper as an allegory for the circulation of power, claiming that “what the face is to the body, the landscape is to the environment (a system of surfaces and holes organized into significance, expressing systems of power)” (24). These expressions, those at surface level or the deeper expressions of the sinkhole, are the premises from which Ulmer focuses electrate practice on choric approaches to writing.

At the root of Ulmer’s project is the relationship between specific topoi and commonplace topoi. For instance, Ulmer highlights the connection between north-central Florida and Coleridge’s poem “Xanadu,” inspired in part by naturalist William Bartram’s descriptions of Salt Springs (“The Chora Collaborations”). In “The Ulmer Tapes,” an interview with John Craig Freeman, Ulmer explains how Florida served as one of the four exotic locations from which Coleridge drew inspiration. He describes the image of Xanadu evoked out of the landscape as “an ecological image, an image of the way in which everything is interrelated.” The tracing of Alachua from Bartram to Coleridge revealed a network of the Romantic imagination for Ulmer, who felt that his connection to the place bore “a certain responsibility, [ . . . ] almost a duty to participate.” The springs and sinks are a complex premise for Ulmer, which he connects to Bartram’s ecological understanding of the world and how this sense of place became a commonplace for Coleridge in the formation of Romantic sensibility.

What interested Ulmer about “Xanadu” was the image of winnowing that Coleridge created out of Bartram’s description of spring sinks disappearing into the ground and boiling up elsewhere from the depths of the Floridan aquifer (Freeman ). To Ulmer, the image of winnowing evokes Plato’s discussion of chora in the Timaeus. Ulmer argues that this act of winnowing, as Coleridge describes it, moves and sorts just as the sieve does in the earlier example. Chora stands between being (the forms) and becoming (the material world) as a “midwife” (52e) sensed only through a “bastard reasoning” (52b). Chora is the location “where chaos passes into order,” which Ulmer compares to “a winnowing basket shaking around” (Ulmer qtd. in Freeman). Through the choric flow of water, things are combined, sorted, and connected in new ways. The Devil’s Millhopper and Salt Springs participate in the complex network of writing ecologies that circulate through time and place.

Thus, north-central Florida is an important premise for Ulmer’s use of choric invention and for electrate practice. Ulmer understands chora through the karst features of the landscape, and in turn, his sense of place is altered by this choric mode. Place and writer are positioned as part of an ever-evolving rhetorical inhabitance. As Ulmer and other writers interact with the Millhopper, they shape and are shaped by the place. Rather than thinking of place as a fixed commonplace, Ulmer’s psychogeographical practices like the popcycle and mystory push writing beyond the subjective relations of Aristotle’s topoi towards methods of choric invention that consider place as part of the conditions of writing.

Solonist Ecocomposition

While Ulmer’s choric invention models how the ecology of a place can function as premises, the conditions of writing, Ulmer’s work also models how we might enact solonist ecocomposition. Ulmer distinguishes solonism from conventional tourism. Whereas a tourist might be defined as a subject who visits places to observe or understand the distinct features of that place, the solonist travels to understand their “self” in relation to place, to observe how place and self are mutually constituted. Ulmer defines solonism in the tradition of the theoria, a practice that provides an excellent model to theorize choric ecocomposition. Rather than defining place as a fixed or commonplace topos, a definition that participates in the separation of subject and environment, theorizing writing as choric better accounts for the complexity of place as an integral part of the conditions of writing.

In “The Ulmer Tapes,” Ulmer explains the connections between electracy, tourism, and the ancient practice of the theoria (θεωρία). A theoria was a group sent from a city on a journey to spectate, observe, discuss, and participate in a religious rite or a duty. These groups sojourned to learn and discover but also to build community identity through monumentality. Similarly, Ulmer and the Florida Research Ensemble [FRE] sought to foster monumentality through tourism. In the electronic essay “Metaphoric Rocks: A Psychogeography of Tourism and Monumentality,” Ulmer compares the tradition of the theoria to contemporary tourism while discussing the Devil’s Millhopper. Here, Ulmer develops a practice for theorizing through travel. He terms this “solonism,” named for Solon who, in Plato’s Timaeus, returned from Egypt with a history of Athens (Atlantis) forgotten in the wake of apocalypse4. For Ulmer a solonist is “a tourist functioning as ‘witness’” (“Metaphoric Rocks”). In this tradition, Ulmer connects the mission of the FRE (and the Florida School) to contemporary Florida tourism. By touring specific regions, the theoria sought to discover information not only about the world around them but also about themselves and the places from which they came. Through this practice, the theoria discovers the connections between self and place, what Ulmer (drawing from Barthes) calls “the middle voice” with voice (διάθεσις) referring also to condition in Ancient Greek (Electronic Monuments 72).

Florida’s tourism industry originated in north-central Florida with glass-bottom boat tours at Silver Springs (see fig. 4), as Wendy Adams King explains in “Through the Looking Glass of Silver Springs: Tourism and the Politics of Vision.”

Figure 4: “Electric Glass Bottom Boats at Beautiful Silver Springs, Florida.” Courtesy of the Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Public Library.

King demonstrates how the boat’s transparent hull provided a medium through which tourists could experience the park while maintaining the subjective distance that characterizes “Kant’s 1870 (about the same time the glass bottom boat appears) distinctions between the aesthetics of the sublime and picturesque” (King). The Romantic conception of nature was a powerful influence on the development of Florida tourism. Ulmer demonstrates that “nature” itself is a literate concept based on the dialectical separation of writer and environment (“Walden Choragraphy”). In this model, the writer writes about, rather than with/in, a material place.

Today, the tourist exemplifies this separation of subject and environment. Tourists travel to attractions with the same “Romantic and transcendentalist desire to escape from civilization into the rejuvenating arms of sublime nature” that King describes. Ulmer’s solonist, however, travels to discover the inseparable premise of place in the formation of self, what Ulmer calls “attunement” (“Walden Choragraphy”). In doing so, Ulmer models how solonism as a practice can move writing beyond the bifurcation of subject and environment that has troubled ecocomposition since its origins, toward networked, emplaced, and ecological models of writing.

Grant and Hawk offer overlapping critiques of Dobrin and Weisser’s early definition of ecocomposition, which attempted to create an ecological model by focusing on discourse instead of literate practices (Grant 204; Hawk 223-224). Hawk argues that “emphasis on discourse and dialectics is a blinder to ecological complexity, which is post dialectical” (223). Dobrin agrees with Hawk’s critique and responds by moving “to disrupt ecocomposition from its social-epistemic and, often, expressivist groundings in order to push ecological methodologies into the potential spaces that Hawk suggests” through what he terms “ecocomposition postcomposition” (Postcomposition 128). Similarly, Grant points to Ulmerian approaches for ways to theorize complexity of writing ecologies beyond discursive metaphor. Solonist ecocomposition is an especially useful practice for unearthing the deep mesh between writer and environment.

Rhetorical Wayfaring

Solonists find their way by recognizing the role of place in the act of writing. As the conditions of writing, place is like a wayfinding point for writing. When travelers look to a specific place, such as when navigating by the stars, their perspective changes depending on where they are in relation to that point5. Similarly, places and writers are constantly changed through the act of writing. As a solonist finds their way through writing, they engage in what anthropologist Tim Ingold calls wayfaring, “the fundamental mode by which living beings inhabit the earth” (12). As the solonist engages with place, they inhabit autochthonous conditions in writing. Ingold, drawing from Whitehead, claims that “the world we inhabit is never complete but continually surpassing itself” (Ingold 12, Whitehead 410). By thinking of our place in the world in terms of the emergent qualities of chora, rather than commonplace topoi, solonists recognize wayfaring as an ongoing process among humans and the nonhuman world. Following Plato’s famous quoting of Heraclitus, “Everything flows and nothing stays” (Cratylus, 402a), solonists embrace the flow of chora to find their way through the world. In doing so, solonists write to inhabit, not to control or dominate the places with which they write.

Building from Ingold, Nathanial Rivers asserts, “Wayfaring is about ‘place-making,’ and it is a way of understanding place outside the nature/culture and human/nonhuman distinction” (184). To visit a place as a tourist is more akin to reading than writing. Tourists consume a sense of place that emerges from prior encounters between various actants (human or nonhuman). Place in this sense is fixed, commonplace, and bifurcated. Places like the Devil’s Millhopper or Silver Springs are the locative equivalent of canonical literature. They are well-known, and their identities are highly stabilized. They are topics of interest, places where outsiders come to consume. As such, they participate in the totalizing force of commonplace. These places resist interaction between park visitors by design. Anyone who has visited a state or national park is familiar with the “leave no trace” policy. The tourist fails to recognize, as Rivers affirms, “trails are made of our footprints, which, rather than leaving marks upon some static substrate, make up the threads weaving that very surface” (185). Until we recognize our impacts as part of our inhabitance, we cannot find our way in the world.

The solonist, on the other hand, participates in the rhetorical act of inhabitance by interacting with place as a writer (as opposed to reader). By writing with/in place in the tradition of the theoria, the solonist learns their own place and discovers their own way. For example, Ulmer’s Florida Rushmore project would radically alter the sense of place commonly associated with the Devil’s Millhopper. Were the electronic projection to be installed in the park, the location would be transformed from a place defined by the tired tropes of the so-called natural world to a mashup of nature and culture. The mixed reality experience described by Ulmer would blend the virtual and actual, word and world. Here, the solonist could visit not to passively consume place but to contribute both to the identity of the place and to their own identity through a kind of rhetorical wayfaring. John Tinnell has termed the emerging movement of place-based writers following Ulmerian methods the “kairotic intellectual” who “creates work in the capacity of actionable media such that their humanistic inquiries not only address a general audience but also interface with local action amid highly public settings” (182). The work of the kairotic intellectual disrupts locations as fixed commonplace, and out of the disruption, a more fluid sense of place emerges. Were Ulmer’s Florida Rushmore project to be installed, the Devil’s Millhopper would become a location for visitors to practice wayfaring with/in the premises of place as solonists.

While tourism is geared solely toward attraction, solonists seek sites of attraction and repulsion. Thus, a solonist ecocomposition endeavors to better acknowledge how places are both abjected and idealized through writing. By revealing the abject elements of place, the solonist discovers not only how self and place are intrinsically bound, but also the connections of specific place to commonplace topoi. To this end, Ulmer’s MEmorial method visualizes the connection of the individual (what Ulmer terms an “egent”) to large-scale, abstract commonplace topoi through specific places. Through electrate practices like the MEmorial, writers move beyond subjective models to account for specific place as the premise of both self and commonplace. That is, the solonist recognizes place as more than just a link between self and commonplace. Place emerges as a location to witness choric circulation, troubling our sense of subject/environment, outer/inner and higher/lower-scale.

There are several recent examples of ecological approaches to writing studies using Ulmerian methods that might serve as models for solonist ecocomposition. For instance, Sean Morey’s webtext describes his project, the “Roadkill Tollbooth,” a “MEmorial” for animals killed in the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill of 2010 (“Deepwater Horizon MEmorial”). In this project, Morey uses a digital map of the Florida turnpike to theorize electrate ecocomposition and to bring abject elements of place into view through “a distributed monumentality that can raise [ . . . ] abject sacrifices to the surface.” In similar fashion, Jacob Greene and I created an augmented reality project to document cyclist deaths in Jacksonville, Florida as part of the University of Florida’s Trace innovation initiative (Jones and Greene). The Trace initiative supports a range of digital humanities projects, including Augmented Reality Criticism (or ARCs) that “use AR to modify and transform dominant narratives about objects, subjects, sites, and historical moments” (Trace ARCs). In place of the physical monuments known as “ghost bikes,” which are often taken down or stolen, the smartphone application displays augmented-reality visualizations of ghost bikes in the locations where cyclists were killed. In both projects, digital media are used to make connections between specific and commonplace topoi visible through writing.

These projects address environments as choric premises to visualize abject elements of place in relation to concepts of digital and material, individual and collective, as well as self and environment. For Morey, this is acknowledging his own complicity in the BP Oil Spill through his personal connection to Key West. For Jacob and me, this is recognizing how attitudes such as racism and fossil-fuel dependence are naturalized into spaces like the sprawled city of Jacksonville, resulting in the unsafe driving conditions that lead to high instances of pedalcyclist death. In a sense, these two examples achieve opposite goals. Morey identifies the individual’s place in a collective disaster while Jacob and I examine how the intersections of histories of violence and dependence on fossil fuels have shaped a specific built environment. Yet, both projects work to show how subjective models for writing based entirely on commonplace topoi prevent scholars from making these connections.

By creating a MEmorial, writers learn their own place, the connection between the individual writer and the larger issues of a society. In this way, solonists reinvent their sense of self and the places with which they interact. In his article “From Augmentation to Articulation: (Hyper)linking the Locations of Public Writing,” Jacob Greene describes making an ARC at the Seaworld-Orlando amusement park as a “process requires a keen rhetorical eye for how a confluence of human and nonhuman elements (e.g., the animals in the park, the software used to design the app, park visitors, Florida’s tourist economy, etc.) co-produce the application alongside its human ‘creators’” (Greene). By creating a digital overlay, human writing does more than simply stack atop the natural world; it interacts with it in a rhetorical coproduction.

In future practice, a solonist ecocomposition might begin by considering place as a premise which troubles distinctions between (human) writer and (nonhuman) environment. Rather than conceiving of the environment (as well as the nonhuman) as either “lacking voice” or being “spoken for” in writing, a solonist ecocomposition bears witness to the choric premises of place as the very conditions of writing itself. Rather than treating writing as the crossing point between a pre-existing agent and the material environment, solonist ecocomposition would implement Ulmerian models such as MEmorial, mystory, and the popcycle into studies of the ecological premises of writing. Such studies would aim to understand how self and place are mutually constituted, not to establish places as origin points, but as nascent landmarks through which to discover our own paths to rhetorical inhabitance.


As demonstrated in this article, writing emerges out of the reciprocal interaction of writers and places in complex rhetorical ecologies. Place is more than content for writing; it constitutes the conditions of writing itself. Examining specific places allows ecocomposition to delineate and locate ecologies of writing. As Dobrin explains, “we may be able to achieve a more ecologically based view of writing by examining the spaces of strange loops as dynamic spaces in which systems establish internal order and as locations in which interrelations take hold” (Postcomposition 166). Places resonate with rhetorical feedback. By triangulating the rhetorical reverberations that constitute place, scholars can navigate the complex ecologies that characterize our relationship with/in places. My analysis illustrates a generalized role of specific place (protasis) in ecocomposition by considering one location, but in doing so, I hope to encourage future writing studies scholarship on premises of writing.

A choric approach to specific places engages the emergent properties of wayfinding that mark the premises of writing. Solonists recognize that navigating writing requires a multitude of wayfinding points. By orienting ourselves to a wider variety of places, writers can negotiate the flows of choric writing. Rather than considering place in the fixed terms of commonplace topoi, this article traces how the karst features of north-central Florida allowed Ulmer to illustrate, comprehend, and deploy choric invention. While the Devil’s Millhopper served as an important premise for Ulmer to negotiate the bifurcation of subject and environment, further consideration of a wider range of places and writers practicing as solonists will yield a still greater set of wayfinding points. Likewise, because solonists recognize writing as a relay occurring with/in place, future studies will bring a wider range of perspectives to the places of writing, such as in the inventive networks of the Alachua springs and writers like Bartram, Coleridge, and Ulmer6.

The goal of this essay is to encourage writing studies to further engage with place in a world characterized by tumultuous change. Human activity has left its mark on even the most remote places, from the atmosphere to the abyssal depths of the oceans. Change is chaotic and often destructive, but it is also a fundamental component of navigation. As our positions change, so do our perceptions, and those perceptions shape our rhetorical locations. A solonist ecocomposition gets beyond thinking of place as fixed commonplace or as bifurcated. Through this study, I propose an ecocomposition that views specific places as important wayfinding points for the practice of theorizing and connecting with/in the places of writing. As solonists, we can now attend to writing’s choric premises.

  • 1. Acknowledgements: I thank the editor, Laurie Gries, and the two anonymous reviewers at enculturation for their thorough and insightful suggestions for revision. I would also like to thank Sid Dobrin, Greg Ulmer, Jacob Greene, Raúl Sánchez, and Jake Riley for their generosity in providing productive feedback and guidance throughout the process of winnowing this essay.
  • 2. James J. Brown, Jr. and Nathaniel A. Rivers draw upon Quentin Meillassoux’s concept of correlationism to underscore the problematic distinctions of subject and environment “to understand rhetoric beyond human access, to consider how nonhumans might persuade, communicate, and identify both with us and with one another” (28)
  • 3. In Digital Detroit, Rice takes a networks approach to place that reveals the connections of human and nonhuman actants without relying on ecology as a metaphor. Rice uses “personal experience of one space” to emphasize the importance of specific locations interacting with the individual in his theory of networks (54). Although ecology is often conflated with terms such as network or circulation, and the use of the term overlaps with these concepts, it also implies a deep connection to the science of ecology and the specific locations of writing
  • 4. Dobrin explains that theoria is closely related to speculum, both to speculate and the specula, the mirror, to reflect, and to see (Constructing Knowledges 7). The word refers to both contemplation and theorizing. For a reading of Plato’s apocalyptic rhetoric and the Atlantis myth, see Madison Jones’s article “Plato’s Apocalyptic Rhetoric: Interpreting Bioregionalism in the Critias-Timaeus Dialogs.” Ulmer suggests that one possible fate for Atlantis was being swallowed by a giant sinkhole (Freeman).
  • 5. Interestingly, Malea Powell and her co-authors suggest constellations as a model for writing. As emerging between human storytellers and the outer world, a constellation “allows for multiply-situated subjects to connect to multiple discourses at the same time, as well as for those relationships [ . . . ] to shift and change without holding a subject captive” (Powell et al.)
  • 6. For a rhetorical perspective on Bartram’s ecological consciousness, see Matthew Sivils’ article, “William Bartram’s Travels and the Rhetoric of Ecological Communities.” His article examines the “move from analyses of Bartram’s influence on the works of writers such as Coleridge” to understand it as “a botanical, zoological, anthropological, ethological, agricultural, theological, sociological, and literary work of great importance” (59). While he demonstrates Bartram’s influence on the American nature writing tradition, from Thoreau to Leopold, Abbey, and others, he also highlights Bartram’s macroscopic, ecological perspective that “tells the story of the entire wilderness, not of only a few species” (59).
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