A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Molten Circulation and Rhetoric’s Materiality

Matthew Halm, Georgia Institute of Technology

(Published August 9, 2023)

Every day, thousands of seismic events occur across the surface of the earth. Most are imperceptible, barely even registering on a seismometer, though many have noticeable or even catastrophic effects. These vibrations are just some of the evidence that we live on an active planet.

But although surface effects like earthquakes may be the most obvious result, the movements of the planet that produce them are much subtler and deeper. The surface of the planet does not move on its own—movement of material beneath the surface (magma in the earth’s mantle) causes movement of the surface. The land features we know as continents are the result of the slow shifting of tectonic plates—massive fragments of lithosphere, circulating on currents of magma, gradually crashing into each other, forcing one another up or down as they meet, or sliding against one another. These same slow movements sometimes produce earthquakes or volcanoes as the planet rearranges itself and “comes to grips” with the fact that all material must go somewhere, and sometimes there isn’t enough space.

The circulation of the material that makes up the planet is a powerful image of dynamism, and it offers potential ways of understanding other forms of circulation. The notion of rhetorical circulation—the idea that rhetoric and its effects move throughout communities and culture more broadly—is often difficult to reconcile with the issue of rhetoric’s materiality because circulation of ideas or discourse implies an immateriality that complicates what it means to call rhetoric material. If circulation is material, which physical entity causes an idea to disseminate through a crowd, or a way of thinking to inhabit the minds of millions? The molten circulation of tectonic plates suggests that rhetorical circulation is an indirect effect of deeper energies and, as such, cannot be separated from materiality: movement beneath the surface causes movement of the surface. The infrastructure itself (rhetoric and the planet) is in flux, causing secondary movements of material associated with it.

This article argues for the interconnectedness of materiality and circulation as concepts for the study of rhetoric via the mechanisms of plate tectonics. The frequency of the planet’s seismic activity is mirrored in its rhetorical activity—most of these planetary reverberations circulate in the background, but occasionally they gain traction and erupt. The choice of tectonic plates is echoed in different terms by Richard McKeon’s description of rhetoric as “architectonic,” which he uses to show that rhetoric deals with “principles” that govern and organize other domains (45–47). Rhetoric is planet-spanning, applicable to all subjects, which helps to explain what rhetoric does. Jenny Rice also draws on the image of “tectonics,” this time as a counterbalance to the scale of the architectonic in her call for regional rhetorics that “provide alternative ways of framing our relationships and modes of belonging” and disrupt narratives “framed on a national level” (203). My use of tectonic plates here is both more literal and more abstract, drawing on the actual physical material of the planet and its movements, and using that material and movement for the production of theoretical concepts. At the same time, McKeon and Rice add productive nuance to the resulting image of rhetoric’s circulation: both connectivity and fragmentation are constant features of rhetoric’s material flux. The connection to tectonic plates demonstrates both, and it is by the same token neither totalizing nor dichotomizing.

Although it might be tempting to think of the comparison between rhetoric and plate tectonics as a metaphor, and although the metaphorical association may be provocative in its own right, there is also an important and very real sense in which this description is not metaphorical at all—earthquakes are communication, tectonics is circulation. One way of capturing the nonmetaphorical arrangement here is via the term diagram. Diagrams, following the version of the concept developed by Félix Guattari, do not represent something other than themselves; they produce meaning on their own. Diagrams are not abstract models either, but instead retain their unique character and cannot be generalized or slowed down such that they are viewable in isolation. Invoking tectonic plates does not represent how rhetoric works by using tectonic plates to point toward rhetoric as an external signified, nor does it attempt to simplify circulation to a point where it is understandable once and for all, but instead generates a meaning of how rhetoric works. The diagram of the mechanism that drives the circulation of tectonic plates can produce an understanding of the mechanism that drives the circulation of rhetoric.

Guattari develops his use of the diagram from semiotician Charles Sanders Peirce, who includes the term among a number of his different classifications of semiotic entities. Guattari explains that for Peirce, diagrams (such as a system of algebraic equations or a set of blueprints) contain “signs [that] function in place of the objects they relate to, independently of any effects of signification that may exist alongside them” (170–171). But unlike Peirce, Guattari separates the diagram from signification, which would otherwise return to representation (Genosko 102). Diagrams for Guattari are “non-representational and upload what they map as they map it,” they push things together, they “[don’t] need meaning, just the manufacture of it” (Genosko 11). In her exploration of Guattari’s “diagrammatic thought,” Janell Watson contrasts the diagrammatic with the more commonplace analytic mode: “diagrams do not represent thought; rather they generate thought” (12). In more familiar language they might be termed “things to think with,” but the concept of the diagram also invokes a semiotic framework that points to relationships between the signifying and the asignifying. The diagram is part of Guattari’s larger project to describe a semiotics of the signifying and the asignifying in all their difference.

There is some precedence for diagrammatic approaches to rhetoric, and even to circulation in particular. Byron Hawk relays one such example, Tony Sampson’s application of viral contagions to models of persuasion. Hawk explains that “viral contagion isn’t just a metaphor for how discourse circulates but provides a model for how forces circulate through all kinds of encounters” (313) [1]. Rather than a hierarchal relationship that might be expected from a metaphorical comparison, the diagram also resituates notions of scale: “The diagram provides an alternative to seeing the macro as a representation of the micro, instead tracing the way relationality gathers and co-produces collectivities regardless of level of scale” (Hawk 313). Diagrammatics itself exemplifies the direct connection of circulation and materiality developed in this article: matter and movement are intertwined, and they do not “represent” or “carry” something other than themselves; they produce effects directly.

The diagram of tectonic plates generates new ways of thinking about the relationship between the circulation and materiality of rhetoric. Movement beneath the surface causes movement of the surface, which composes the planet. Circulation and materiality drive the planet’s processes of production,[2] and this diagram reveals rhetoric’s infrastructural reliance on them as well [3]. The sections below build this diagrammatic approach by moving through three pairs of concepts as a means of unpacking and resituating the relationship between circulation and materiality, which are sometimes seen as oppositional. The article begins with the terms circulation and materiality themselves, investigates their underpinnings with the more basic terms of motion and energy, and draws out the terms subduction and erasure as provocations for new theorization. By describing rhetoric as a resource caught up in the processes of the entire planet, we can see how rhetoric exists outside of a distinction between material and nonmaterial. This position, derived from a planetary understanding of circulation, has important theoretical and ethical implications for the study of rhetoric as well as writing and media [4]. The fundamental relationship between circulation and materiality developed in the article suggests that rhetoric draws on resources of the planet and is itself such a resource; a consideration of the consequences of none of these resources being infinitely renewable closes the article.

Circulation and Materiality

Circulation and materiality are fundamental to the diagram of tectonic plates deployed in this article, and the diagram helps deepen their role in the study of rhetoric. For rhetoric, circulation is a useful but challenging concept, particularly when attention is given to the material and nondiscursive aspects of rhetorical ecologies. Circulation is often invoked to describe rhetoric’s “movement” among individuals in a group like a community or network. Laurie Gries, for example, explains that the term refers both to “spatiotemporal flow as well as a cultural-rhetorical process” that is prominent, though often unnamed as such, in discussions of traditional rhetorical concepts such as doxa, delivery, and commonplaces (3). As it circulates, rhetoric induces commonly held opinions or ideology—more people are exposed to it, and it gains or loses strength.

Although defining circulation in this way necessarily requires that there is something being circulated, that thing doing the circulating is often posited as immaterial: an idea, a thought, or simply “discourse.” As a result, the concept of circulation has been in some ways directly opposed to materiality—Catherine Chaput argues that “Rhetorical circulation gives up the causal relationship between rhetoric and materiality” (20). Even when whatever it is that is circulating takes material forms (perhaps the idea is written down, or perhaps the entire function of circulation in a particular instance is to get a printed document in as many hands as possible), the larger-scale flow of circulation usually involves some seemingly immaterial entity, and so circulation is less readily grasped, as a whole, as material. As Chaput puts it, “rhetorical circulation implies that some element moves throughout material and discursive spaces to connect the differently situated moments comprising its organic whole” (13); if circulation involves both the material and the immaterial, then the “element” circulating must somehow be able to interface with both. But if circulation is inherently material, which material circulates when a public speaker persuades a crowd to align with her ideology, or when a digital video spreads online? Perhaps a few steps along the way are more evidently material, like sound waves or bodily reactions, but these trail off into vaguer notions. Or if circulation is not inherently material, how does an immaterial “thought” become a material document like a leaflet or a flier that is physically spread around a city? We might intuitively think of this as straightforward, but parsing the minute particulars again shows that the ability to classify something as “material or not” quickly loses precision.

Materiality is increasingly a locus for theorization of rhetoric, and materialist ontologies (both in the context of rhetoric and elsewhere) have taken a number of forms. Materialism has been associated with perspectives like Marxism, mechanism, and the natural sciences, and although each iteration has some commonalities, they are also quite distinct and exist within their own historical (and material) contexts. At its core, materialism emphasizes the raw material of the world, often as a counterbalance to other ontological emphases like language or cognition. The more recent “new” materialisms move beyond a corrective role to more holistically acknowledge the interplay between materialism and positions that might have previously been seen as irreconcilable opposites. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost describe a core tenet of this holistic view in their introduction to an edited collection on new materialisms: “if everything is material inasmuch as it is composed of physiochemical processes, nothing is reducible to such processes” (9). This two-pronged philosophy simultaneously declares the importance of materiality while acknowledging its limits—not to posit that there is a corresponding “immateriality,” but instead to affirm that materiality is so vast and vanishingly minute that to consider every detail or component would exhaust any available means of inquiry. New materialism thus manages to emphasize the importance of materiality at the same time that it describes challenges inherent in its infinite complexity.

Although a focus on materiality can sometimes seem relatively straightforward in theory, the perspective immediately creates complexity when applied in practice. Whether one tries to distinguish between the material and the immaterial or tries to posit everything as material, the ontological maneuvering required can create a number of challenges (no small part of which involves the nature of language itself, which cannot escape its own materiality even as it tries to describe things for which there appear to be no material counterparts). As Coole and Frost put it,

as soon as we [think about matter], we seem to distance ourselves from it, and within the space that opens up, a host of immaterial things seem to emerge: language, consciousness, subjectivity, agency, mind, soul . . . [that] have typically been presented as idealities fundamentally different from matter. (1­–2)

Rhetorical circulation is a prime example of this distancing. As noted above, a focus on circulation inevitably invokes units like thought and discourse that are commonly assumed to lack materiality, and it describes their movement through groups like discourse communities, which are challenging to demarcate or even identify in tangible ways. Such work is far from impossible, but it highlights the opportunity to continue examining its conceptual underpinnings in more detail.

The ubiquitous influence of material and its circulation is both easy to ignore and difficult to escape in the current era, which is dominated by constant production and consumption of material goods that may one day result in a planet-covering geological record of plastic debris (leading some to label it the “Anthropocene”). For Coole and Frost, the interests of materialism are nothing less than “prerequisites for any plausible account of coexistence and its conditions in the twenty-first century” (2). Justine Wells, Bridie McGreavy, Samantha Senda-Cook, and George McHendry, Jr. similarly argue that the ability for humans in this era to exert “geological force,” causing planetary effects such as “environmental pollutants and climate change,” means that an “ecological orientation . . . is needed for our profoundly ecological times” (8). Critically, this ecological orientation is inherently material—various turns toward ecological perspectives are rooted in the productive capacity of the planet’s complex systems. Even without increasing evidence of humanity’s disproportionate influence on planetary forces like climate, its planet-encompassing circulation makes rhetoric an inherently ecological—and environmental—project.

Attention to the material world within rhetorical study, as exemplified, for instance, by Thomas Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric, is fundamentally a restructuring of the traditional dichotomy between the material (traditionally associated with the natural world) and the nonmaterial (traditionally associated with the mental activity of humans). In other words, materialism rethinks the divide between the discursive and nondiscursive, a dichotomy that presumes a distinction between the activity of rhetoric and that which surrounds that activity (the world). Rickert argues that the oppositional positions of realism and idealism (one of the earliest versions of the dichotomy between the discursive and the nondiscursive or between the material and the nonmaterial, having emerged from Greco-Roman antiquity) are in fact based on the same foundational principle, namely that there is a binary between realism and idealism to begin with (197). The “solution” to their opposition, then, does not amount to picking a side, or resolving the two in a dialectic, or even “blurring” the distinction, but instead moving beyond the foundational principle that set the two positions at odds in the first place. Stepping back from the binary reveals its artificiality and shows that it is ultimately unnecessary.

The importance of materiality is evident, on the one hand, in the increasingly urgent exigence of global concerns like climate collapse and, on the other, in the minute details of the everyday. Circulation is also, as Gries puts it, a “threshold concept” for rhetorical studies and, as such, “has the ability to transform our understanding of how discourse flows and co-constitutes our subjectivities, identities, and daily activities” (11). But to fully integrate these concepts, circulation must be (re)embedded in material processes in a way that does not create a distinction between materiality and something beyond it. Rhetorical circulation is fundamentally material: it is constant and infrastructural. As in the case of the movement of tectonic plates, circulation is an effect of a dynamic system of matter and energy. Movement beneath the surface causes movement of the surface. But to step aside from the binary between materiality and immateriality requires a corresponding resituating of the relationship between the part and the whole: the surface and the depths below are interrelated parts of the same system, both distinct and intermingled. Materiality and circulation are intertwined.

Motion and Energy

The concept of circulation—because it is especially targeted at the intersection between movement and matter—highlights the importance of materiality for the study of rhetoric, and intrinsically emphasizes the need for a materialist account of circulation. The “pitiless cosmic motions” Coole and Frost invoke to describe the vast reach of materialism are fundamental to the functioning of the universe. On a subatomic scale, matter is continually in motion, but even in more practical frames of reference, materiality emphasizes change and fresh context. Motion is tied to materiality. Without motion there would be no matter, and without a material context as a frame of reference, motion loses meaning. The energy required for motion is also central to understanding circulation. The earth orbits the sun because of the enormous amount of energy involved in the formation of the solar system, which set the planets in motion, orbiting and spinning. Earth’s core retains some of this energy, heating its layers from below, inducing (among other things) the movement of tectonic plates. Animals consume food to power cellular energy factories, enabling them to use muscles to move around their environments. Electric motors produce motion generated by the interaction between an electrical current and a magnetic field. Both motion and energy have been studied as rhetorical concepts, and such work accentuates their importance for theorizing circulation and for rhetorical study more broadly.

Whether literal or figurative, the concept of circulation implies movement. Motion may seem at first to be too generic a force to have bearing on rhetoric. In fact, Kenneth Burke contrasts motion and action (of the sort recalled by his famous definition of rhetoric as “symbolic action”) by depicting action as symbolic and motion as nonsymbolic (809). But before dismissing motion and the nonsymbolic as lacking relevance for rhetoric or for the motion implied by circulation (not to mention rhetoricians’ increasing interest in the nonsymbolic in its own right), it is important to note that Burke’s formulation sets action as a specific kind of motion: action is motion performed in service of a symbol system, which might lead to persuasion or identification. Debra Hawhee cautions against reading Burke’s contrast between motion and action as a “firm distinction,” suggesting instead that the two are “neither juxtaposed nor mutually exclusive” (157). This means that motion more generally, far from being of no concern for rhetoric, is an infrastructural support for what might more readily be called rhetorical: “there could be no symbolic action unless grounded in the realm of motion” (Burke 811). “Moving” an audience (perhaps to tears or some other response) is a certain kind of motion; whether or not it is further labelled as “action” is a consequence of human preference for a certain kind of salience.

Rhetorical action can be further considered a form of energy, following George Kennedy and Carolyn Miller, who both apply scientific notions of the interaction between matter and energy to the functioning of rhetoric. For Kennedy, “physical energy” is required for rhetorical acts like speaking, gesturing, and writing, and those acts convey “rhetorical energy” (4). Circulating material then does more than leave a trace of its movement; somewhere along the way the energy that caused its movement is also “converted” into rhetorical energy that would-be recipients might be in a position to “decode,” converting the energy stored in the message into a different sort of energy used for some further action on their part. Miller extends the concept to describe rhetorical agency as a form of “kinetic energy,” energy in use during the rhetorical act (147). By specifying this “kinetic energy” in opposition to “potential energy”—energy stored and waiting to be used—Miller reinforces the association between rhetorical energy and the more tangible and familiar energy used to power a computer or a microwave. If rhetoric, for Miller, is kinetic energy, then it was stored as potential energy before being used to enact rhetoric, and the method of its storage relies on some sort of material. Rhetoric can in this way be understood to be a natural resource of the planet, like water or coal. The tactics deployed to extract, manipulate, and relocate such resources are planetary.

Kennedy implicitly supports such claims by virtue of his larger project to describe rhetoric as “a natural phenomenon” (4). If rhetoric is a natural resource, or if it is generated from natural resources, then, like rare earth minerals or oil or other nonrenewable resources, it can be used up (even water is used up, over a geologic timescale). Indeed, in a fundamental way each of these resources must be used up to do the things they are used to do. If matter were not able to be consumed, it would not be able to be converted into energy (as in the example of food). The energy required for rhetoric is also consumed/transformed, and the energy of rhetoric is consumed/transformed again when it encounters entities in the world capable of reacting materially. Rhetoric connects matter and energy and in turn connects many disparate elements of the planet together, rearranges them, and produces new material forms. The diagram of tectonic plates demonstrates the material consequences of rearranging the planet.

Energy-as-resource is one of four non-exhaustive categories Chris Ingraham proposes as ways to think about rhetoric’s energetic character. For this category, “humans and their environments . . . are all resources for one another” (265). The rhetorical energy of the world is “co-constitutive” and “incapable of containment” (Ingraham 265). The above discussion of energy has primarily focused on this category, but the other categories Ingraham mentions (and potentially further categories beyond his taxonomy) are equally important and overlap. In addition to energy as resource, Ingraham describes ways of approaching it as intensity (suggesting that rather than relying on a contrast between kinetic and potential energy, rhetorical energy is “always active”), as vitality (suggesting that rhetoric is inherently vital, without the need of an external element), and as sensation (emphasizing the ways entities relationally perceive each other in the world) (Ingraham 264–266). Each of these categories brings productive resonance to understanding rhetorical energy, and together they suggest that emphasizing energy offers a way beyond a distinction between material and immaterial. 

Matter and energy are fundamentally related. Energy connects the subatomic particles that compose matter; Einstein’s famous equation, e=mc2, shows the amount of energy occupied in the task of holding matter together. Thus energy, although it might seem “immaterial,” is an infrastructural support for matter, and vice versa. In rhetorical studies, energy and materiality are similarly intertwined: rather than renewing a binary distinction between the material and immaterial, an emphasis on matter and energy breaks down the concept of immateriality (pushes it back into the mantle, repurposing its components for future compositions). A distinction, for example, between “kinetic” and “potential” energy, such as the one depicted by Miller above, relies on a frame of reference centered on a particular rhetorical act [5]. When that frame of reference is expanded, the distinction breaks down. Energy that is stored in matter is not placeless, it is part of another composition (perhaps the composition of a mountain range or sea floor). The fact that it has not been made “kinetic” for a certain other composition does not mean it is somehow inactive or inert—it is occupied in the task of its current ongoing composition. By the same token, each composition always contains the potential for innumerable other compositions, as matter and energy circulate across the surface of the planet.

In the short term, most of the matter on the planet originates from and remains on Earth, but a large portion of the planet’s energy arrives from elsewhere: the sun. Energy from the sun is still a resource, but one with vast reserves that will outlast the planet itself; the enormous amounts of energy arriving at Earth from the sun would be enough to power every city on the planet thousands of times over [6]. If energy from the sun and “rhetorical energy” seem distinct from one another, it is only because rhetoric is typically associated with humans and with “immaterial” notions like thought and discourse. As a rebuttal to such typical assumptions, John Muckelbauer provocatively suggests that “the implicit paradigmatic image of rhetorical studies today should be the event of heliotropism, or the movement of plants toward the sun” (39). In this frame of reference, the act of turning itself is an important point of comparison to acts that might more readily be grasped as rhetorical. Muckelbauer proposes such an image in part to “[flatten] out the nature-culture distinction . . . explicit in something like Burke’s action-motion distinction” (39), discussed above, and the sun’s function as an energy source—and thus its role as an attractor—is central to his argument. Muckelbauer is interested in the means by which plants “turn” toward an energy source so that we might “[learn] about persuasion from plants” (40) [7]. Turning and movement have both so-called “nonsymbolic” components (movement as motion) and “symbolic” components (movement as persuasion). Perhaps more importantly, turning shows a role energy can play in a rhetorical (or perhaps a rhetorically-adjacent) process. It is not so much that plants are “persuaded” by the sun to orient themselves toward it, but that the larger material context within which plants exist induces them to respond to external stimuli in much the same way that we might observe rhetorical ecologies subtly inducing action on the part of humans. Simply catching someone’s attention (turning someone’s head) might be enough to induce/persuade them to act.

The materiality of circulation demonstrated in the diagram of tectonic plates offers a view toward the sort of flattening Muckelbauer is interested in. The energy source driving the circulation of tectonic plates is the planet’s molten core. When plants “turn” toward an energy source like the sun, they position themselves flush with the “surface” of sunlight, gradually “moving across” that surface to keep in contact with it as the sun transits the sky above. Tectonic plates similarly “move across” currents of magma produced by fluctuations in heat and density. The planet “turns” around and toward itself, and the energy emanating from within. On the surface, we observe this turning only in terms of its effects and byproducts, but in the depths below, the turning looks very different. Vast currents of magma churn beneath the surface—not just red-hot molten lava one might observe erupting from a volcano, but solid rock forced by immense pressure to slowly deform and move inexorably around the layers of the planet. In a moment’s glimpse of human lifetimes, the planet is solid and stable; across geologic timescales, it is a blur. This dynamism produces movement, motion, and action—with all its rhetorical connotations. As the planet churns, it induces action on the part of its inhabitants, humans and nonhumans alike.

Subduction and Erasure

As circulation moves material, it creates new formations and destroys existing ones. The movement of tectonic plates is an example of a mechanism through which new material is produced (mountains, volcanoes, islands, and so forth) at the expense of other material through processes like subduction. Subduction describes the movement of one tectonic plate beneath another, forced into the planet’s mantle by the movement of the opposed plate, producing geological features like oceanic trenches and mountain ranges, as well as more immediate effects like earthquakes or volcanic eruptions (Condie 4–5). As a result of the movement of tectonic plates, matter moves around the planet, and this sort of circulation is irreversible. When new material is formed at the meeting point between tectonic plates, the surface of the planet is consumed somewhere else. Although the new material (a mountain range or portion of sea floor, perhaps) is composed of generally similar material as the edge of the plate forced back into the planet’s mantle, the exact makeup of each area cannot be returned to its original state. Subduction is complex and nuanced and is a focus of ongoing study, but it broadly conveys a process of the planet rearranging itself at the expense of some part of itself. Movements like subduction represent a longer-view capacity for the world to “use itself up.”

Most material resources get used up, and even renewable resources diminish over geologically long periods of time. And although many processes that use raw materials, in turn, produce new materials that could then theoretically become raw materials for some other process, something has fundamentally changed along the way. In their book Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough and Michael Braungart mention the example of a rug made from recycled soda bottles. Although we might think of such a product as a renewal of the plastic used in the construction of the bottles, the “fate” of the plastic has only been postponed: “The rug is still on its way to a landfill; it’s just stopping off in your house en route” (4). The cycle of circulation cannot be reversed; time cannot be rewound. If we are to “renew” such materials, it must be through a continual and autonomous process—continual because the need for “renewal” does not end after a single iteration of the process, and autonomous (or at least distributed) because there will not always be a specific entity present to assist.

As seen with tectonic plates, for circulation to expose new material of the planet, it must erase something old, even if it’s just the particular configuration of raw material involved—or, more specifically, the raw state of the raw material involved. By definition, this process can’t be undone, and it calls into question the notion of a “raw state” of anything in the first place. Everything on the planet was made from something else on the planet—and, further back, from material involved in the formation of the solar system, and so on. None of this has ever been “new” or “old” in the traditional sense of such terms. Each composition contains the potential for future compositions, so the distinction between present compositions and potential compositions is a question of perspective. Material continually circulates in an unending flux; new formations emerge, and old ones recede, but each are part of the other.

From a philosophical perspective on media—seen, for example, in John Durham Peters’s book The Marvelous Clouds—erasure is a balancing-out of the universe that allows for the continued existence of media. If media did not go away, we would find ourselves unable to continue creating new media because we would run out of space. Or, as Peters puts it, “A universe of gaps is a universe in which we have something to do” (352). Erasure is lively and creative, “both damage and salvation, an operation that runs against entropy” (Peters 356). All of this leads Peters to conclude that for media, “Loss and damage . . . are as important as storage” (358). Seen from this perspective, erasure is simply a different form of production—the binary opposition is unnecessary.

For rhetoricians, perhaps the most readily available articulation of the notion of production as erasure is Burke’s claim that “a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing.” As has been widely noted, Burke’s aphorism suggests an inescapable myopia inherent in human existence. We cannot look at everything at once, so we must train our point of view (taken literally as the focus of the eyes, or representationally as the subject of media) on some things at the expense of other things. Rickert complicates Burke’s position by noting that “Burke’s seeing is that of a subject,” which “already indicates a fundamental gap separating the thing seen from the seer” (175). Such a gap, for Rickert, ignores the inherent overlapping nature of all things, human and nonhuman. To develop his distinction from Burke’s subjective “way of not seeing,” Rickert shifts from a focus on the ability of sight to the capacity for concealment or unconcealment, the “play” of which “is not solely human doing” (175). Rickert argues that “language is not so much (or at least simply) a sign system as it is the rich background of ordering relations within which symbolicity emerges and from which it takes its bearings” (179). Symbolicity “drapes over” the world (Rickert 166). The “ambience” of Rickert’s rhetoric is this worldly character of all things that steps back from rather than reconciles the binary between human and world, natural and unnatural. Rhetoric and language are parts of the world’s ecology (and its geology). We gather and rearrange that ecology in certain ways in order to attempt to represent concepts or things but such a representation is only for us, and the same resources simultaneously remain nonrepresentational and material parts of the world. As Rickert depicts the situation, these aspects of an entity that escape representation “withdraw” into it at the same time that attempts at representation draw out certain other aspects. There is always more beneath the surface of the world than what can be said about it.

Withdrawal also evokes an image of receding material, though in Rickert’s sense it is the qualities of material that withdraw into it as we try to explain or “represent” some other quality. Retreating glaciers or shifting climate patterns are a sort of withdrawal of the planet’s own potential and current compositions, over long periods of time (though not as long as they might have been without our intervention). As the planet circulates parts of itself, turning toward and around different features or intensities, some parts withdraw as others are revealed (some potentials are cut off while others gain prominence). This withdrawal is both material and conceptual, in the sense that the matter itself is productive of the potential realities that correspond to concepts. We might consider some of that withdrawal to be catastrophic or morally objectionable, as in the case of human-caused climate collapse, but even a solution to such a problem will come with its own withdrawal. By the same token, withdrawal is always accompanied by production of something new, even if that something new is just the externalities (like heat, pollution, or urban sprawl) that initiated the withdrawal in the first place. Just as likely is the production of novel and unexpected results, with implications yet to be discovered.

As with the case of erasure or of materiality itself, there is no intrinsic ethical polarity to withdrawal—it is a natural feature of material circulation. This does not mean that withdrawal and circulation are not ethical, but that an ethical judgment associated with their outcomes is not integrated with them a priori. The diagram of tectonic plates slipping and sliding over the surface of the planet shows that withdrawal is generative as well as destructive. A view of circulation that steps back from traditional binary oppositions to a wider planetary perspective reveals a holistic framework for the concept’s continued theorization in rhetorical studies and adjacent disciplines. The massively material nature of circulation also suggests ethical implications inherent in all forms of rhetoric; to the extent that humans have agency over their productive and destructive acts, a sense of ethics can obligate that those acts be taken with certain types of care. Molten circulation reminds us that the influence of any action—rhetorical or otherwise—can have far-reaching effects. The productive and destructive capabilities of rhetoric and writing in particular suggest an ethical mindset discussed briefly below.

Conclusion: Ethics of Reconciliation

Beyond the increasing interest paid to the ecological in the study of rhetoric, it is possible to view rhetoric itself as an ecological project. Particularly in the context of a focus on circulation, rhetoric deals with connections between elements, and at every turn, those connections can be traced back to the living and energetic world that rhetoric inhabits and emerges from. In this sense, rhetorical acts carry ethical implications based on their interactions with the world. This doesn’t mean that rhetoric as a whole must contend with ethics on a planetary scale (if such an ethics were possible), but that any rhetorical act carries ecological weight—it could affect ecologies positively or negatively (a valence determined by a sense of ethics), and it in turn will become a part (large or small) of the ecologies of the future. If the planet uses itself up during the course of its continual material tectonic fluctuation, then processes on its surface that draw on the resources of the planet must admit their own transience while also integrating themselves with the environment that enables and constitutes the process itself.

Within environmental ecology there has been a shift away from so-called restoration or reservation ecologies toward reconciliation ecology. Whereas restoration ecology tries to remake “natural” areas as they once were, and reservation ecology tries to set aside certain areas so that they can remain “natural,” reconciliation ecology is a mindset aware of the complexities required for coexistence (Rosenzweig 199–201). Rather than separate humans and nonhumans, reconciliation ecology “discovers how to modify and diversify anthropogenic habitats so that they harbor a wide variety of wild species” (Rosenzweig 201). Although the explicit aim of such an ecology is to “halt the current mass extinction” (Rosenzweig 203), reconciliation also implies a perspective on the world that admits the impossibility of stasis; life is defined by change. If “reconciliation” sounds too final or all-encompassing, Donna Haraway’s “more modest” focus on “partial recuperation and getting on together” (10) reflects a similar spirit—and this extends to the rhetorical, as well. If we are to live ecologically with rhetoric, we must, as Kerry Banazek suggests, develop an ethics of materials that “respects” an object’s “independent agencies.” At the very least, we need a perspective capable of seeing humans, material, and everything else in the world as interconnected and mutually constitutive—not just constitutive of each’s current composition, but also their potential future compositions. Movement beneath the surface (outside the typical scale of human perspectives) causes movement of the surface, and the ongoing composition of the planet as a whole further breaks down a distinction between “beneath” and “above.”

A critical part of the continual circulation of matter across, within, and above the surface of the planet is the ongoing pileup of past compositions, which form the strata from which new compositions are drawn. As noted above, this is not always harmonious as in the romantic “circle of life”—some of these new compositions are pollution or climate collapse. Living with this pileup necessitates finding ways to deal with it responsibly. Survival in the “ruins” of capitalism, for example, is the subject of Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s book The Mushroom at the End of the World, which centers on the ability for matsutake mushrooms to thrive in the breakdown of human civilization, and which seeks methods of “salvage accumulation” to counter the dominant commodifying processes of capitalism. Even writing or rhetoric could contribute to unwanted excess; as Doug Hesse has pondered, the inherent scarcity of material could mean that “the world might be better off with less writing in it.”

Most discussion of rhetoric’s circulation is focused on the dissemination of discourse or ideas, but it does not attend to what happens after this has run its course. Like tectonic plates rearranging the surface of the planet, moving something from one point to another has ripple effects, and the material involved in the enactment of that circulation becomes part of the future existence of the world. One route to ethical composition in the face of this permanence is a reciprocal focus on decomposition, seen not as composition’s opposite but its mirror image (the same process, viewed differently). Joshua Trey Barnett’s analysis of the rhetoric surrounding a project designed to cultivate mushrooms that decompose one’s own body after death reveals important connections to circulation and materiality. To decompose “is also to be lost, to be distributed, to be digested, to be transformed into something else,” but rather than dissolve agency, the foreknowledge of one’s own decomposition instills an ethical imperative inherent in living itself (Barnett 229). Decomposition reveals the future potential within one’s own current composition. Barnett’s focus on the end of individual human lives hints at a wider view of the ongoing flux of human lifecycles on a planetary scale. As Matthias Fritsch puts it, each living generation “takes turns” with the planet; his project to piece together an intergenerational ethics capable of respecting the rights of future inhabitants of the planet (human and otherwise) relies on each generation offering the planet—and themselves—to the next. Our lives shift and bump into one another, consuming and producing a world for subsequent lives.

When humans communicate, they reposition materials in such a way that some other entity (often another human, but perhaps a nonhuman, a machine, or some combination of any of these) might come into contact with that rearrangement of matter, enter into a relation with it, and perceive it in a particular way. Without this capacity for material circulation, symbolicity is irrelevant. Rhetoric’s circulation, understood via the diagram of tectonic plates, is a manifestation of the planet’s natural resources and, as such, is influenced by and influencing of the larger planetary ecology in which it exists.

The continual motion of the planet produces raw seismic effects like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, but it also produces semiotic effects like rhetoric and meaning. The interplay between these systems of material circulation is vast and complex, but it is also a resource to be used with care because each maneuver of material necessarily has incalculable ripple effects. Rhetoric that takes materiality and circulation seriously must be holistically integrated with the flow of material, continually fluctuating with the shifting tides of the planet’s energies.

[1] In the Guattarian sense of diagram, even the move to “model” does not fully account for the effect of the concept: “Diagrams get models (existing coordinates of thought on the side of expression) moving, and in full flight become meta-models, imbued with potentiality” (Genosko 11). The distinction is important, but the overall trajectory toward the asignifying is retained in Hawk’s description here.

[2] In addition to shifting landmasses creating new continents over geologically-long periods of time, planetary scientists hypothesize that the dynamic nature of Earth’s crust allowed chemicals necessary for the development of life to escape the planet’s interior for more hospitable conditions on the surface, such as in hydrothermal vents (Condie 283–4).

[3] The diagrammatic focus on infrastructure also distinguishes this view of circulation from related depictions, such as Jonathan Bradshaw’s “slow circulation,” which he deploys to counter the “speedy, viral circulation models with which we are so comfortable as frames for digital media” because they “are unfit for the types of rhetorical work some small-scale, regional, and community advocacy groups aim to do” (481). Social change, Bradshaw argues, is “rarely sudden” (481). Although understanding circulation via the diagram of tectonic plates provides a frame of reference capable of understanding this “slow circulation,” its articulation in this article has less explicitly to do with speed than with the interconnections between infrastructure and surface effects, which—though they may appear distinguishable—are reciprocal rearrangements of matter and energy.

[4] This planetary perspective is nascent in recent rhetorical scholarship, such as in the ecological and material turns, and it can also be seen explicitly in work in media studies like Nicole Starosielski’s The Undersea Network and Lisa Parks’s Cultures in Orbit. This article works to activate some of the potential presented by a planetary perspective on rhetoric, though there are many avenues left to pursue. Ehren Pflugfelder’s recent book Geoengineering, Persuasion, and the Climate Crisis pushes in this direction in its development of a “geologic rhetoric” which allows the discourse surrounding geoengineering projects to be examined alongside the materiality of the planet that geoengineering seeks to manipulate.

[5] The distinction between kinetic and potential energy also evokes a parallel Aristotelian distinction between potentiality and actuality. Ingraham points out that Aristotle’s use of the term energeia, which we might be tempted to directly translate as “energy,” is “better understood as ‘actuality,’ which pairs it naturally with […] potentiality” (261).

[6] In one hour, the planet receives enough solar energy to account for an entire year’s worth of human energy consumption (Tsao et al.).

[7] Although he doesn’t use the term, Muckelbauer’s suggestion of “learning about persuasion from plants” bears some affinity to this article’s diagrammatic approach described above. We might also learn about persuasion from the Sun, and from the planet.

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