"Too often, we miss the opportunity to acknowledge the force of things because we assume they are inert tools used by human agents to whom we typically credit with full-blown agency."
-Laurie Gries, "Iconographic Tracking: A Digital Research Method for Visual Rhetorics and Circulation Studies."
“A fiction with ‘variable geometry’: this is what needs to be invented, if we mean to track the variations of a technological project that has the potential to become an object.”
-Bruno Latour, Aramis, or The Love of Technology (24-25).
"The philosopher's job is not merely that of documenting the state of this situation but of making an effort to grapple with it in particular circumstances."
-Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It's Like to Be a Thing (31).
Course Methodology: Doing vs. MeaningRhetoric scholar Laurie Gries describes “seven different yet overlapping rhetorical processes: composition, production, distribution, assemblage, circulation, transformation, and consequentiality.” These seven processes provide the framework for constructing object analyses. That is, for each object students account for (i.e., document, describe, analyze) each of these processes. Gries continues, adding in a few levels of complexity to this methodology:
Scholars are encouraged to seek out the dynamic, consequential, unfolding, and technologically mediated activities that enable rhetoric to emerge and affect reality. Rather than be certain that this thing is rhetorical in this way and this time and space, then, a new materialist approach seeks to empirically discover how this thing becomes eventful and rhetorical as it circulates with time, enters into new associations, transforms, and affects a multiplicity of consequences.She here highlights a key aspect of this analytical method: while we can helpfully break up an object into these seven processes, we must always be mindful of how these seven processes are not, in fact, distinct. She writes, “in order to generate complex, ontological accounts of a singular [object’s] rhetorical becoming, studies of futurity do demand investigating all these sites in a single case study.” In stressing “futurity” (the “dynamic” and “consequential”), Gries means to highlight what objects will do or become. Processes merge, overlap, and shape one another throughout the life of an object. Recognizing and documenting this overlap is crucial for successful object analyses.
So far so good, I think, with respect to futurity, dynamism, and consequentiality. But let’s to return to the above quote once more. By “ontological account,” Gries means the description of an object’s existence, being, or reality—what an object is (or becomes) in-and-of-itself. Ontology, to make a prediction, is the single biggest conceptual hurdle in this course. By way of addressing this hurdle, let us approach the object’s ontology in terms of the idea (or the question) of meaning. The question of meaning is common in English Studies, both in traditional rhetorical analysis and in the study of literature (although it is certainly not the only one): What does this word mean? What does this phrase mean? What does this poem mean? What is the meaning of this short story or novel? Related to the question of meaning, is the concern with representation: What does this character represent? What values are expressed by this advertisement or film? In terms of our object analyses, we aren’t simply interested in meaning or representation. While worthwhile, such an approach to objects tends to result in questions like What does this door mean? How does this door represent Western values?
Instead, we are interested in effects: we will ask not what an object means but what the object does. (Of course, and as we’ll see in the discussion of consequentiality, we can easily treat meaning as effect: we could argue that part of what an object does is produce meaning.) The primary reason for this distinction is that meaning is often seen as a function of interpretation: meaning is easily treated as something we put into the object. That is, the quest for meaning often implies that what an object means it means for (or because of) us. In a similar vein, representation tends to reduce objects to merely passive receptacles for the culture around them. In this course we are looking (ontologically) to the object as precisely that which is not for us or reducible to us. To work with an admittedly tenuous yet provisionally productive binary, this course is interested in what objects do and are and not what they mean or represent.
There is an additional benefit of focusing on doing (or effect) rather than meaning (or representation). Doing allows us to focus on objects as ongoing events. In short, doing allows us to focus not simply on what an object is (its being) but also on what it will be (its becoming). In focusing on doing, we can see both how objects transform over time and how they interact with other objects. As we focus on doing, objects are revealed as interactive, effective, and, thus, rhetorical. Gries writes, “In thinking about [objects] as eventful things, we are not only reminded of rhetoric’s ability to induce cooperation, as Kenneth Burke emphasized, but also to induce assemblage (and reassemblage).” Furthermore, the focus on doing forces us to acknowledge the limits of our interaction with objects and what we can know about them. If objects are constantly interacting and transforming, then they are never settled, never stable and fully knowable. A focus on the movement and becoming of objects is crucial to exploring them as rhetorical. Gries argues that such an approach allows us to “a.) follow the multiple transformations that an image undergoes during circulation and b.) identify the complex consequentiality that emerges from its diverse encounters.”
In addition to attending to these processes—how they occur, how they reoccur, and even how they overlap—we necessarily pay attention to time and place. That is, a process like transformation demands that we attend to time: a process such as circulation demands that we attend to place. We must then attend to scale—micro, meso, and macro—to see how, for instance, transformation occurs in terms of a large network of objects (macro), in terms of key actors with that network (meso), and at the level of particular object itself (micro). Additionally, we must attend to how objects can be re-produced, re-distributed, re-circulated, and re-assembled over time and through levels of interaction. Oftentimes, an object’s rhetorical work is never done. Attention to micro-, meso-, and macro-levels of these seven rhetorical processes as well as their reoccurrence adds depth to any analysis of the seven rhetorical processes described below.
Course Methodology: The Seven Rhetorical Processes
- Composition can best be understood as the design of an object. In the case of the door, that design was composed by people. In the case of, say, a beaver dam, we can see the object was designed or composed by the beaver. As with each of the seven rhetorical processes we have identified (akin the “variable geometry” described by Latour), there can be overlap. So the composition of an object can be distributed through both time and space and other objects. For instance, the composition of the door is contingent upon the affordances of the building materials. A designer cannot do whatever she wants with wood, but must instead account for its properties. Additionally, the designer must account for the way the door will be used: what it assembles, how it might transform and what consequences it will produce (privacy, community, attunement to the environment).
- Production indicates the techno-human labor devoted to create or bring an object to life, to reality. It can describe the processes, people, tools, infrastructure, and bureaucracy necessary to produce an object. The glue that holds the door together, the people who assemble the door, the conveyor belts that move the doors, and the heat, pressure, and time that cause the glue to bind and thus the door to form. Production can here overlap which such processes as assemblage. First, the production process itself assembles humans and nonhumans alike. Second, the production of the door can promote or account for future assemblages: the groove created in the side of the door is a future site of the hinges that will articulate it to the door’s frame.
- Distribution is the way in which objects get to where they are intended, by the designer, to get. More specifically (and in contrast to circulation described below), distribution is the intentionl way an object moves. How does the door get from the factory to the showroom and from the showroom to the house? What and who is involved and what is their role? Distribution is particularly well-suited to study at the macro- or system level. What actors are called into action (or assembled) by the distribution of doors: logistic, economic, aesthetic. We have trucks, truck-drivers, roads, gas-stations, rest-stops, uppers, planes, pilots, air-traffic control, weather patterns, meteorologists. We also have showrooms, sales people, capitalism, and Presidents Day Sales.
- Assemblage, perhaps a process more readily recognizable to traditional understandings of rhetoric, captures how objects bring other objects (humans and nonhumans) together. Objects tend to form groups or cliques as it were, and these cliques cohere around such objects (or vice versa: your object might be drawn toward other objects). Doors tend to attract a wide and diverse range of assemblages. For starters, the wooden doors we examined under composition and production attract hardware such as hinges, handles, deadbolts, doorframes, windows, kick-plates, along with signage, grooms, doormen, security guards, thieves, the homeless, pets, and even termites. Assemblages are productively explored, as the above list indicates, at macro-, meso-, and micro-levels. At micro-level we have the features of the door itself; at the meso-level we have the hardware and human actors (kickplates and security guards), and the macro-level we have the network of humans and nonhumans at any given location in which the door operates: for instance, a busy shopping mall. Thinking of assemblages in this way points us toward a discussion of consequences.
- Circulation, even in my own mind, is difficult to distinguish from distribution. That said, I believe the most productive way of differentiating the two is to distinguish between points of departure and intentionality. Distribution describes the intentional (on the part of the designer or producer) movement away from a point of composition or production; in contrast, circulation describes the movement between and within assemblages irrespective of the designer’s or producer’s intent. In case of doors, how do they circulate within a house or move around once they have reached their point of sale? Looking ahead to transformation, how do doors get moved as they are repurposed? Think about the life of a door in a house. A new front door causes the old one to be circulated to become the new back door or into the basement, a garage sale or a fire pit. Admittedly, documenting a circulating object would be easier (or more explicit) if the object was, let’s say, an image or a pair of pants. For instance, how does an image circulate across media (think of internet memes)? How does a pair of pants circulate within a wardrobe or travel within a group of friends?
- Transformation is a particularly interesting process, and it’s constantly overlapping the other processes. How are objects changed by and through their distribution, circulation, and assemblages? For instance, as a door circulates within a home it might be used as a table, which reassembles the door with table legs and disassembles it from its hardware: hinges, handles and locks. The door might be kept as a door but with the addition of a doggy door. A door could also be transformed into a personal statement as they often are in university dormitories. I can think of many more such transformations: many years back, my father and I got the bright idea to use an old door as a ramp. We needed to get our rather heavy riding mower into the back of my truck to bring it to a mechanic (the mower broke down rather frequently, being its own rather needy object). Unfortunately, no photo- or video-graphic evidence exists, but, needless to say, the door held until the mower was halfway into the truck bed. It’s last gasp as a whole door was to save my father and I from serious bodily harm. The door later kept us warm as we transformed it into heat as a bonfire. Transformations, which can occur at micro-, meso-, and macro-levels, change the rhetorical profile of the object: how it will redistribute, recirculate, reassemble, and reproduce consequences.
- Consequentiality, like assemblage, is easier to understand from within a traditional rhetorical framework. Consequences, like many of the other processes, can be broadly conceived. How does an object transform other objects, human and nonhuman? How does it effect how other objects circulate relative to other objects—how humans relate to other humans and to nonhumans? How does an object construct or co-construct the agency of other objects? Think of how a door can produce privacy. In terms of agency, think how a door co-constructs our abilities to protect ourselves and our loved ones (or our prized possessions). Doors also shape our behavior: lines are frequently a function of narrow points of entry assembled by doors. Likewise, particular kinds of doors—those not constructing privacy and security—can re-create our relationship to the outside. Big glass doors blur the inside/outside distinction. Consequently, we change the way we might see ourselves in relation to what is around us. We could see, in certain respects, consequentiality as the whole show—if we were not also interested in the who, what, where, when, why, and how of objects. If our focus is on what objects do and become (on rhetoric and effects), then consequentiality is where it’s at (and will be). And finally, by way of addressing the tenuous distinction between meaning and doing that we started with, consequentiality is where we can find meaning from and in an object. Meaning, in other words, is a consequence of (re)composition, (re)production, (re)assemblage, (re)circulation, and (re)transformation.